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Mephistopheles and Other Bad Guys
Kevin Short (bass)
Male Chorus of the Opéra de Marseille
Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille/Lawrence Foster
rec. 2016, Palais du Pharo, Marseille
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
PENTATONE PTC5186585 SACD [57:41]

American bass-baritone Kevin Short has made himself a name in North America for quite some time, and since moving to Switzerland, where he has lived a number of years, he has also conquered the old world. I haven’t come across him very often, apart from a rather shaky Il Re in Aida from Bregenz almost a decade ago and Lodovico in the recent Pentatone production of Otello (review), where I am afraid I didn’t even mention him. Here, though, all light is on him in this recital of arias and songs by a number of ‘bad guys’. And the worst of the bunch is the notorious Mephistopheles. We find him in operas by Gounod, Boito and Berlioz – the latter to be honest a dramatic legend – and songs by Beethoven, Gordon Getty and Mussorgsky. But the other bad guys still have a lot in common with this archetype of evil, whether named Devil or Satan or whatever.

Kevin Short is equipped with a powerful voice and a timbre that easily lends itself to expressing evilness. He has a menacing laughter – Méphistophélés’ Serenade (tr. 2) in Faust and Mussorgsky’s Song of the flea (tr. 16) – and in Boito’s Mefistofele his whistling is truly devilish – Son lo spirito (tr. 3). He is good at keeping the tension – also when singing softly, which he does on several instances.

Beethoven’s Song of the flea (tr. 5) is here performed in Shostakovich’s expressive and colourful orchestration, written in the last year of his life. Pizarro’s aria from Fidelio is really frightening (tr. 6) and here we also hear the male chorus expressing their reactions to his revengeful words – though they are recorded fairly distantly. Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (tr. 7 – 8) is of course an evil character but since this is a comic opera – at least when it comes to Osmin and Blonde – we can’t take him too seriously. Anyway Short has enough power also in the deepest notes to make them tell (O, wie will ich triumphieren!)

One of the most otherworldly baddies is no doubt Caspar in Weber’s Der Freischütz (tr. 9) and his snarling impersonation of this formidable character from the underworld is one of the best in this recital. In French repertoire we also have the evil powers of Lindorff and Dapertutto (tr. 10 – 11). The former is slightly strained in the highest register – though elsewhere he sports piercing top notes effortlessly – while the latter’s Scintille, diamant is sung with good legato at mezza forte, which only makes his more dangerous at such hushed intensity.

From Verdi’s many memorable bass characters Kevin Short opts for one of the rarely heard ones, Pagano in the early I Lombardi (tr. 12), and this is a welcome diversion from what in general are the expected bad guys. With Berlioz’ Méphistophélés we are back in the standard repertoire (tr. 13 – 14), and well sung the arias are, but Gordon Getty’s setting of his own Mephistophelean lyrics is a novelty – and a fascinating piece it is. A novelty is also Stravinsky’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Song of the flea, and it is followed by Nick Shadow’s aria from The Rake’s Progress, which is one of the highlights here. Bertram’s recitative and evocation from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable has been a favourite of French basses, not least at the beginning of the previous century, and it is good to have it here. As a conclusion we get Alberich’s soliloquy from Das Rheingold. It is convincingly sung but I still miss the deep remorse that some singers have been able to express and make one even feel some pity for the loathsome dwarf.

There is a great deal of excellent singing here, but in spite of all the intensity there is after all a kind of sameness about the readings. This is in all honesty more the fault of the format than the singer. Almost one hour’s worth of bass arias becomes in the long run hard to stomach. Today it happens quite often that a singer invites one or two colleagues to join him/her in a couple of numbers, which lends more variety to the programme. Still this is largely an attractive disc with excellent accompaniment, but is, I believe, better enjoyed taken two or three arias at a time.

Let me add that the disc is SACD, but I have listened in traditional two-channel stereo, which sounds excellent.

Göran Forsling

Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
Faust (1859).
1. Le veau d’or [2:17]
2. Vous qui faites l’endormie (Serenade) [3:10]
Arrigo BOITO (1842 – 1918)
Mefistofele (1868/1876):
3. Son lo Spirito che nega (Song of the whistle) [3:53]
4. Ecco il mondo (Ballad of the world) [2:43]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
5. Es war einmal ein König Op. 75 No. 3 (Song of the Flea from Goethe’s Faust) (1809 /1975) [2:13]
Fidelio, Op. 72 (1805/1814):
6. Ha! Welch ein Augenblick (Pizarro’s Aria) [3:27]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail, KV 384 (1782):
7. Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden (Osmin’s Song) [2:19]
8. O, wie will ich triumphieren (Osmin’s Aria) [3:44]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 – 1826)
Der Freischütz, J.277 (1821):
9. Schweig, schweig, damit dich niemand warnt (Caspar’s Aria) [3:17]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880)
Les contes d’Hoffmann (1881):
10. Dans les rôles d’amoureux langoureux (Lindorff’s Couplets) [2:41]
11. Scintille, diamant (Dappertutto’s Aria) [2:40]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
I Lombardi (1843):
12. Sciagurata! Hai tu creduto (Pagano’s Aria) [5:02]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
La damnation de Faust, Op. 24 (1846)
13. Voici des roses (Méphistophélés’ Aria) [2:37]
14. Devant la maison (Méphistophélés’ Serenade) [2:21]
Gordon GETTY (b. 1933)
15. Mephistopheles to Faust (Lyrics by the composer) [3:00]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839 – 1881)
Orchestration by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
16. Pesnya o blokhe (Song of the flea) (1879) [3:09]
The Rake’s Progress (1951):
17. I burn! I freeze! (Shadow’s Aria) [1:49]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864)
Roberto le diable (1831):
Voici donc les débris – Nonnes, qui reposez (Bertram’s Recitative and Evocation) [3:08]
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Das Rheingold (1854):
19. Bin ich nun frei? (Alberich’s Aria) [3:31]

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